Olivia Waters SpeaksUp

My name is Olivia, and I chose to live.

As I’m sitting here, my stomach is in knots. Never did I think I would come forward and tell my story. For a long time, I was embarrassed. People can be cruel, especially, the people who don’t understand. It’s easy to have an opinion on something that you’ve never experienced. For some, this may be just a story. For me, this is my life. I’ve lived this. Now, instead of feeling a sense of embarrassment, I feel a sense of pride. I look at all that I’ve overcome, and it makes me proud. The darkest days in my life will always be a part of me, but the happy ending will also be a part of me too. A bigger, stronger part.

On March 29, 2007, my world as I knew it before didn’t exist. My eldest cousin, Alan, passed away at the young age of 24 years old. He was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, went into remission twice, and the third time was just too much for him to take. I remember that day as if it were yesterday. The unbearable pain and heartbreak. That was the day that life just became too hard. Or so I thought.

We buried him on April 1, 2007, and it snowed. I remember looking around at the trees in the cemetery and admiring their beauty. I forgot for a second what I was there for. I checked back into reality, and I felt numb. This wasn’t right. It wasn’t supposed to end like this for him. Not this way. The sadness quickly turned into a plethora of emotions. While everyone else was being strong, I was falling apart. And I continued to do so.

They say pain changes people, and I definitely would agree. For the next couple of months, I became a different person. My outgoing and bubbly personality would make an occasional appearance, but not very often. I isolated myself from everyone that cared about me. My days were dark and redundant. Wake up, go to school, and come home. I would come home exhausted from the façade I put on during the day at school. I was hiding my pain, and it was taking its toll. I was going even further down this path, and it was going nowhere good.

My sixteenth birthday came, and the excitement wasn’t there. The depression had increasingly become worse over the last few months for me.  I felt like I was living in a dark hole. The days would run together, and I was just checked out. Looking back, it still hurts. All the days that I lied to myself and others saying I was okay when I wasn’t. Soon, there would be no denying how not okay I was.

January 1, 2008. The beginning of a new year. I was in my room, being a hermit as usual, and I started to not feel right. I started sweating, my heart started beating fast, and felt like I couldn’t breathe. I went into my mom’s room and told her how I was feeling. Mind you, at this time, I still was hiding my pain from my family. So, ‘how I was feeling’ was actually how I wish I felt. I wish it would have been strictly physical. She thought maybe I was just getting a virus, or having an allergic reaction. But all too soon, the jig was up for me. My paralyzing anxiety and depression was abundantly clear to those around me.

The next day, I had a panic attack and started seizing. I ended up in the ER, and I just laid in the hospital bed in a daze. I had never felt that feeling before. One of the nurses came into the room and I snapped out of it for a minute. She said they were trying to get me a bed at a local hospital so that I could be “treated appropriately.” “Treated appropriately” were her exact words. I laid there for a few minutes mulling over what exactly she meant. Treated for what? I was fine. Then it hit me. They wanted to send me to a psychiatric unit. My heart dropped as the tears exploded from my eyes.

I had been seeing a psychiatrist for a few weeks by that time, and it was still early in my treatment. The doctor explained that it could be beneficial, and by that time there was a social worker knocking on my door at the hospital. I remember thinking, “So, I have to plead my case to someone who doesn’t even know me? This guy is going to be my judge and jury?” He came in and introduced himself, and asked a bunch of questions. Questions from “Who is the President?” to the cliché “Tell me how you’re feeling.” I gave him the ‘Cliff Notes’ version of how I was feeling. How do you explain to a perfect stranger how much pain you’re in?  I knew the moment he looked up from his paperwork that he knew I needed help. I will never forget the look on his face. It was a sad and concerned look, almost like he was feeling some of my agony. My parents came in and I started to cry. I was willing to accept help. My mom called the psychiatrist that was treating me, and he said inpatient treatment he felt would do more harm than good.

They sent me home, and I ended up in bed staring up at the ceiling for countless hours. My mind wouldn’t shut off. All I wanted was just a minute of peace. No worry, no anxiety, no sadness.  I was vulnerable, and I knew it. While I was staring up at the ceiling, I would listen for my parents' voices. Along with the panic disorder and depression, Agoraphobia had developed. I didn’t want to be alone, but I was afraid to be by myself. I had a few select individuals that were “the trusted ones” that I would allow to stay with me. They were few and far between though. Finally, I would drift off to sleep when my mind could no longer take the stress. Sometimes I would sleep for a few minutes, and sometimes for a few hours. All I know is that for that period of time, I was free.

I would wake up in the morning from the little amount of sleep my mind allowed me to have, and I would be tired. Drained. Just existing hurt me. I’d lay in bed most mornings asking God why he was putting me through this, and there was tear stains on my pillows from all the tears. I would make my way to the bathroom, and avoided the mirror. When I would catch a glimpse of myself, I would shutter at what I had become.

I didn’t recognize the girl in the mirror. I looked gaunt and sickly. My once rosy cheeks had disappeared, and I was pale with tear stains under the bags of my eyes. At that point, the bathroom trips in the morning became longer and longer. I would vomit at the thought of facing the day. The dread of what could happen was just too much to bear, and my body couldn’t handle it. I had stopped eating. What was the point, if all of it was just going to come back up?

I was laying in the fetal position on my bathroom floor when my mom walked in. The look of concern on her face was the same one I’d seen daily. I was hysterically crying about how I couldn’t live like this anymore. It was too much. I didn’t have it in me. My mom took me in her arms and rested her head on my shoulder and told me I had to fight. “Please,” she said as she rubbed my hair. For one second, I let myself relax. I went back to the carefree days when she used to do that to get me to sleep. The break from reality was well needed.

The guilt of having my parents suffer because of me added to my stress level. They never said it, but I could tell that seeing me like that was taking its toll on them. They were exhausted, and rightfully so. They were worried about me, and it consumed them. I knew in the darkest moments how much I was loved, because they got up every day and did it all over again. They cared for me, and loved me no matter how little I loved myself.

Feeling that love from them was one of the reasons I had to fight. I had no choice. I needed to get through this. Looking up at my mom’s face, I knew I couldn’t give up. I found my courage in the person who had given me life. Ironic, isn’t it? She was giving me life all over again.  I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I was going to do it. I couldn’t look too far into the future, because frankly, that was scary. But, I could look a few minutes into the future. “Just get through these next few minutes” was my mantra. When I first told myself that, I really meant minutes. I remember thinking, “Just worry about the next five minutes and go from there.” But then minutes turned into hours, which turned into days, which turned in to weeks, and so on.

I ended up finishing my junior year of high school at home. I had a teacher that would come three days a week to help me finish with my class. She was a life saver. Along with her teaching, she also would encourage me every day. “You’re going to get through this, Olivia” was what she told me almost every session. She was a kind soul, and believed in me more than I believed in myself. We formed a bond, and before I knew it, I was confident I was going to get through this tough time, as well. Just had to take it a minute at a time.

I continued my treatment with my psychiatrist, and I finally was beginning to see a light at the end of a long and dark tunnel. I was in therapy as well, and I began to open up more. I was taking baby steps towards recovery, but I was progressing. That was what I wanted to continue to do. In September of 2008, I started senior year with my class. That is one of my biggest accomplishments. I was able to come back and feel some sense of normalcy again.

I continued to see my doctors and therapists, and I was placed on the proper amount of medication after many trial and error attempts. Each day got better and better, and the Olivia that people knew prior to my sickness began to return. The bubbly, outgoing, loving Olivia was making her comeback, and it was the best feeling. My big, dimpled smile that I have had since birth was shining brighter than ever. I was allowing myself to feel joy again. I chose joy. It is a choice that I have made every day for almost the past decade.

Almost ten years later, I am proud to say, I made it! I found a career that I love in nursing, and am grateful every day that I can do what I love. I can’t begin to describe how rewarding it is to be able to help others. I go to work every day with the intention of helping my patients the same way my doctors, therapists, family, and close friends helped me. However, the biggest amount of gratitude goes to God. I know I couldn’t have made it through what I did without His grace. I know my recovery was His will, and I will praise Him every second for the rest of my days.

I am so thankful for the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation for letting me share my story. I chose to share so that the ones that are currently suffering know they are not alone. There are people fighting the same battle as you. I emphasize the word “fighting,” because none of this is easy. Nothing about depression is easy. However, one thing that no one can take away from you is hope, and I know that firsthand. When I had hope for recovery, my recovery began. Start with that. Your happy ending awaits.

Katherine Cook